(Baku) - Azerbaijani courts have sentenced at least 30 people who took part in peaceful protests to between 5 and 8 days in prison in late night trials that were closed to the public, Human Rights Watch said today. The rallies on March 11 and 12, 2011, in the wake of the mass protests in the Middle East, protested government corruption and called for the Azerbaijan leadership to resign.
"Azerbaijani authorities should immediately set free those detained for supporting the protests in Baku," said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Instead of jailing peaceful protesters, the authorities should be investigating police conduct during those rallies."
Police roughed up many protesters at the rallies. Over a two-day period, the police also rounded up about 100 people in downtown Baku who had intended to or who had participated in the rallies. Most were held for a few hours and released after police took statements from them, but courts sentenced at least 30 people to administrative - or misdemeanor - detention, on charges of disobeying police orders or participating in an unsanctioned rally.
Among those convicted were some who had been on their way to the demonstration sites. Tural Abassli, leader of the opposition Musavat party's youth wing, was detained after police stopped a cab in which he was riding on his way to Fountain Square for the March 12 rally. The detention report, however, stated that he was apprehended at Fountain Square, and he was convicted of participating in an unsanctioned rally and sentenced to eight days of administrative imprisonment.
Elkin Aliyev, a reporter for Azerbaijan News Network, an independent online news website, was sentenced to seven days in detention for participating in unsanctioned rally and disobeying police orders. Police alleged at his hearing that Aliyev had shouted "Azadlig" ("Freedom") at the rally, which they contended proved that he was participating, not reporting. Aliyev denied that he was participating and said he had been working as a journalist.
A Human Rights Watch researcher who observed the demonstration found that police did not otherwise detain or harass journalists reporting on the demonstration.
"Azerbaijan's police have a long record of beating journalists reporting on demonstrations, so the fact that police for the most part let journalists do their jobs is a positive step," Denber said. "And yet it's a sad day when an accusation of shouting ‘Freedom' can land you behind bars. The Azerbaijani authorities have a long way to go to show they are committed to freedom of expression and assembly."
All of the trials were effectively closed, even though the Azerbaijan Civil Procedures Code says hearings on administrative offenses should be open to the public. Elchin Namazov, a lawyer who represented two defendants in separate trials, said he had asked each time for the court to allow media and family members to be in the courtroom, but both motions were denied.
"I asked the judge if this was an open or closed hearing," he said. "He responded that it was open. Then I made a motion to allow journalists and family members in the courtroom. The judge responded that their presence would interfere with the normal hearing and refused. He never explained how."
Another lawyer, Anar Gasimov, who represented one of the detainees in the same court, shared a similar story: "As I knew that the process was officially public, I made a motion for the judge to allow press and family members in the courtroom. He responded that the process was closed. I told him that according to the law such trials were open to the public and he should not close it. But he again repeated that it's closed. Later when I received the decision, it said that the case was reviewed at an open hearing."
Public scrutiny is a crucial element of the right to a fair trial guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 14) and the European Convention of Human Rights (Article 6).
"Open trials represent a significant safeguard against the administration of justice in secret," Denber said. "Any limitations to public hearings should be strictly necessary to protect safety and the privacy of witnesses, which did not appear to be an issue in these cases."
Most defendants did not have access to counsel of their choosing. Because the hearings were held late at night and the police refused to allow detainees to contact lawyers, lawyers for some of the defendants didn't know when or where the trials were being held. Namazov and Gasimov managed to find out that their clients' hearings were set for Sabail District Court. But when they arrived at the court on March 12 at around 8 pm, the court doors were locked.
"We knocked on the door, but no one responded," Namazov told Human Rights Watch. "Then we started to bang, shouting that we were lawyers and wanted to see our clients. They let us in 15 minutes later."
Namazov and Gasimov managed to represent three detainees, but said that at least 20 others brought to the same court later were provided with two state-appointed lawyers. Namazov told Human Rights Watch that many of those detainees petitioned the court, refusing the service of a state-appointed lawyer. The court satisfied their requests, but did not allow them to have a lawyer of their choosing. Trials in which Namazov and Gasimov participated lasted for 30 to 40 minutes, while other hearings were concluded in five to seven minutes.
"The arrest and trials of peaceful protesters were a mockery of Azerbaijan's justice system and of the government's international human rights obligations," Denber said.